In Praise of Boredom

March 8, 2017 at 3:44 pm

Is boredom a sign of weakness? Is it a statement on our inability to engage our imagination with the constituents of the present moment or is it a doorway out of the ‘now’ that we are too afraid to step through? When did we collectively decide to shun boredom and celebrate its cousin, stillness?


Image Courtesy: Alison


Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.” – John Berryman (The Dream Songs)

It is this very thought, repeated through the years of our childhood, that shackles our experience of boredom with a judgment on our esteem. Only a man of weak intellect, we believe, can be bored in a world that has so much to offer. We remember the great flashes in the sky but forget the many quiet afternoons that have passed over us, plain and modest. Why don’t those quiet afternoons count?

If there is one quality that unites the great thinkers, achievers, and geniuses of the world, it is that they were all able to handle boredom with grace. To tackle boredom, we must start by understanding it. Psychological scientist John Eastwood and his research team at York University define boredom as “being in a state of longing for activity but unaware of what it is that one desires and to look to the world to solve the impasse.”

When we indulge in a fresh new activity, the experience triggers the release of opioids in the brain. The effect of this release is pleasurable. Incidentally, the same neural receptors are responsible for the high we get from opiate drugs such as heroin and morphine. When the same ‘new activity’ is repeated, it doesn’t result in a similar high. This should explain why standing in the corner of a room is punishing whereas standing in the line for a concert is pleasurable. It is the anticipation of the new experience that makes it so. Being hard-wired for pleasure, we seek more from a task than it can possibly give us. We move away from boredom in the pursuit of newer and bigger experiences for the same reason an addict nudges forward constantly towards an increase in his dosage: to relive the pleasure that the first experience yielded. Boredom isn’t the weakness, running from it is.

Our relationship with boredom borrows its values from our relationship with time. The language we use around something reveals the nature of our association with it. I was barely a few years old when I was made aware of the concept of “wastage” in time. Indulging in this wastage in the pretext of being bored was an act of defiance. Sitting down and doing nothing was frowned upon in my childhood, but as an adult, this practice can have punitive consequences. The only way to escape the judgment of engaging in boredom is by calling it a different name: stillness.

Pico Iyer, in his praise of stillness talks of the Sabbath. He observes how it is the only word in the Ten Commandments for which the adjective “holy” is used. Sabbath is also the longest chapter in the Torah. But boredom differs from stillness in one important aspect: we often do not know where boredom leads us, while stillness has a perceived favorable outcome of calmness and well-being. A planned pocket of stillness in a yoga class is called meditation whereas the same stillness that visits us unplanned in the middle of a task is boredom. Isn’t that silly? Inner stillness practiced in trained segments of time is a good start, but it soon becomes meaningless when it is avoided the rest of the day. Rejecting boredom and seeking stillness is like rejecting thinking in the pursuit of knowledge.

In a society that values productivity over purpose, boredom has lost its sheen. But it is precisely for this reason that boredom needs to be embraced. We need to get comfortable with waiting, especially when we don’t know what we are waiting for.

Being comfortable with being bored prepares us for just being. When we are busy we are always ‘being something’. The formless unselfish act of just being is the first step in experiencing ourselves unshackled. It is in this way of being that we encounter the real reason boredom is shunned, for beneath our addiction to pleasure is a deeper addiction that fuels this discomfort: our addiction for meaning.

“In Mourning, it is the world that has become poor and empty; in melancholia, it is the ego itself. And in boredom, we might add, it is both.” – Adam Phillips

So boredom is an experience worse than a tragedy, for in both mourning and melancholy we still preserve the luxury of being able to derive meaning from the emptiness. Boredom is blunt, vacant and meaningless. We so abhor an empty experience that we crave to embalm it with any meaning that is close at hand and when we don’t find one, we strive to erase it completely from our lives. But as the great Psychoanalyst W.R.Bion so wisely posits, “Inability to tolerate empty space limits the amount of space available.

Instead of looking out into the world to solve the impasse, these pockets of emptiness could be better used as opportunities to dive within. These are the times when we reflect on the world we see and the reason we see it the way we do. We seldom see the world as it is. We always see it as we believe it to be or want it to be. But in these moments of emptiness, this way of seeing becomes apparent. When we hit a roadblock and stop doing something, we stop the machinery that we have blindly surrendered into and in doing so, we award ourselves a moment of reflection. Boredom is a moment of approach, a time when we start disembarking from our perceived philosophy to meet the philosophy we are living. Not the one we ‘want to live’, but the one we have been living unknowingly. The one we cradle within our choices and silently proclaim with our decisions.

 “Action has its seasons too — one of which is inaction.” – Andreana E. Lefton

We are a culture of people who value doing more than being. But it is in the folds of our being where we find hidden the greatest truths of our lives. They don’t scream out to us the way deadlines or reminders do, but their calls are just as vital. This is what boredom facilitates through the necessary silence it bestows upon us.

When we inhale ourselves into a moment of boredom, we seldom come back from it unchanged. Perhaps this is why we avoid it so vehemently. It’s natural to be unprepared for change in the middle of a meeting or when pushing the shopping cart down the isle, but this is exactly how it hits us. If we would let it, boredom would come thundering down on us the same way inspiration does and we need to receive them both with commensurate reverence. Just like a bold new idea, a lived moment of boredom truly has the ability to transform our lives. For boredom and inspiration, are the waxing and waning of the soul.

The Forgotten Realm of Free Will

January 22, 2016 at 11:45 pm

The opportunities in our lives usually present themselves through crossroads. An array of doors face us and demand us to choose the one we intend to walk through. But ever so often, when we choose a door and close the rest, we don’t close them completely. We leave a sliver open. A window of hope that we visit later and reminisce over. A window called “what if?

Image Courtesy: *_Abhi_*

Image Courtesy: *_Abhi_*

A crossroad by nature presents us with choices that are at once equally enticing or equally fearful. The true perplexity of this predicament shows its ugly face after the choice has been made and not during it. For when we tread down the chosen path and encounter our first hiccup, instead of offering ourselves to its remedying, we find ourselves pondering over our fantasies of what could’ve been had we chosen otherwise. Our constructed castles in which the other options either flourish wondrously or fail miserably depend on the kind of vessel we have chosen to fill our temperament within.

“Do you really want to look back on your life and see how wonderful it could have been had you not been afraid to live it?” ― Caroline Myss 

Walking through these twisted imaginary pathways, we can fashion many a perfect life through the myriad combinations of what ifs. From then on, once created, this perfect life becomes the ghost of the life we are living. It meets us in the dark alleys in times flavored with despondency. Our desperation for a better life becomes the very lever on which this ghost turns our imagination around so that we can meet it. Thereby coming face to face with the wretchedness of the now and the enchantment of what could have been. If there is a hell, this is it.

These shadow reveries pose as the key to a happy life. A life that could’ve been. The enchanted doorway that was left open for us to walk through that we chose to walk past. The threshold at which this reverie meets our reality is where our hell resides. Our personal self-fashioned hell. While wisdom would goad us into slaying this ghost and preserving our sanity, our actions seldom act in accordance. We find ourselves in a limbo, crushed under the weight of a phantom life we haven’t lived and crippled in our attempts to live the one we have chosen.

It follows, then, that the only way to get into Hell is to insist upon it…Hell is what the damned have actively and insistently wished for. Thus, allegorically, Hell is the true goal of the damned. – Mark Musa’s commentary on Dante’s Inferno

The best way to deal with this is to first understand how these ghouls of our vacuous past get created in the first place. When time moves through the environment we live in, it creates events. When we brush past these events we create circumstances and when these circumstances are personalized, they are seen as opportunities or doorways that could change the way we experience time flowing through us. This is what a choice is, a threshold in life that prompts us to reflect on how we want to fashion our walk through it. This is how we architect our life, by choosing the doorways we step through.

A choice, on the surface presents itself through its options, but at its very core it is the whys and whats of a choice that turn our levers. The majority of us make choices through elimination. We arrive at an option by eliminating the others and this process when driven by selection separates the least preferred from the most and when arrived through fear separates the least dangerous from the rest. This process of elimination is not really a choice, it is called a decision.

Decide, whose roots are derived from the Latin word “caedere“, shares its etymology with words such as suicide, homicide and genocide. It also operates the same way. It kills the options to arrive at the one it isn’t able to. The last option standing becomes the doorway we walk through and we foolishly call this experience choosing. This killing of options metaphorically creates the ghosts that later come to haunt us.

A decision is made through elimination of options. It relies heavily on the premises that are made available in the moment. As the moment passes, the premises sometimes change and we find ourselves in an emotional quagmire. It is no wonder we spend so much time second guessing ourselves. A life plagued by unsure decisions becomes an easy prey to its own past.

When we rely on the strength of the options and their premises, we make the reasons that fuel the decision more important than our free will. This creates an imbalance of power, since the power that was meant to rest on our will now rests on justifications surrounding the rationale behind the usage of our will. This makes the options bigger than us. The placement of power in that interaction is outside of us. We place our power outside us and then subsequently proceed to chop away at it, leaving its fragments waiting for us at those various crossroads. This is precisely what comes back to haunt us.

This is one of the handicaps of growing up. As adults we are predisposed to “deciding”, while a child chooses. A child’s choice is directed purely by freewill. He does something because “he” wants to, and not because the “option” is the right one. The power in this case is within the child, operated purely through his freewill. He is erratic, eccentric and unpredictable, but he will never be plagued by his bad choices, because “he” chose them. There is a very subtle distinction in this, which if deciphered can make a world of a difference to us. When we grow up we stop choosing. Our misguided sense of responsibility takes over and pushes our free will aside to make room for well-intentioned reasoning. We start believing that the reason something is done or not done is more important than our desire to do it. We start viewing the world through the lenses of our reasons and this creates minefields out of the landscapes we journey through. We are forever at vigil because we are forever fearful of taking the wrong step. A life without freewill is a life lived completely in the tortured quarters of the inner critic. It’s competitive where it doesn’t need to be and its judgments are predominantly skewed. The whats of our choices start mattering more than the whys and this catalyzes our downfall.

A choice places our power back where it rightfully belongs. Inside us. There is no fragmenting of power when it is wielded through free will. An option is chosen because “you” chose it, not because the reasons you employed to arrive at it outweighs the reasons employed to arrive at the rest. This dependency on reasons creates a reasonable life, never a powerful one. Taking control of your choices creates an intentional life, not one lived in the residue of reasons.

A life ruled by reasons is confusing and fickle. It can never be relied on. As eccentric as it seems on the outside, a life driven by free will is calmer and brings in more contentment. We do things because we choose to do them. There is no other reason. Not because we are supposed to or we are expected to. Just because we choose to. That is the only way to eliminate regrets. Children don’t carry regrets because they are driven by their will. That is the reason we have free will. To use it.

To the thoughtful this may seem bizarre and to the responsible, careless. But think for a moment where you place your power. Is it in your hands or do you give a portion of it away every time you hold a reason more important than your will? Life is best navigated with your power held securely within you. This is what self-esteem looks like. This is why it is always the eccentric ones that lead the pack. They can because they are vessels of power. They own the power that the others carelessly throw away. If you want to be responsible, be so with your esteem and the way you wield power. Responsibility, like power, needs to work inside out.

Image Courtesy: Martin Fisch

Image Courtesy: Martin Fisch

When you choose something because “you” choose it, you then take complete responsibility for that choice. That moment is now complete. There are no fragments of your will left scattered that you then need to worry about. You are complete as is your choice. You then move forward with confidence, driven by your will as opposed to trudging through shouldering the weight of your decision being driven by fear and guilt.

Intuition lays waste when it doesn’t have the will to back it. In the arid landscapes of the shoulds and coulds, what room does an intuitive leap have? For intuition to work through us, it demands a sturdy esteem. One that is able to walk through doorways without being answerable to judgments and pliable to approval. That is the power freewill grants us, the power to soar over expectations. A life lived to meet expectations may hit the mark, but will seldom satisfy us because the mark is usually not created by us. Freedom is absent in a life lived under the burden of what ifs. True freedom resides in the ability to stare into a crossroad and say “What now?

An Island between Infinities

January 8, 2016 at 9:49 pm

Our narrow understanding of ‘Life‘, is one of the biggest obstacles to living it fully. If the definition of life were a vessel, we would fill it with descriptions ranging from the deeply intimate to the most obliquely abstract. Our fantasy of a limitless life and our perceived reality of a limited one wield their control on us in simultaneity. Which is real? If both are, which one must we tilt our favour towards?


Image Courtesy: azarius

Image Courtesy: azarius

Connecting the Dots

May 16, 2015 at 12:53 pm

Traversing the thin meandering paths between our wants and needs in life may be a very demanding journey, but it is just as necessary. We cannot choose not to take it, we can only choose when we do. While our ‘wants’ make themselves obvious, it’s the hidden ‘needs’ that usually forge the paths that our lives take and although some of us are blessed with knowing what we need, the rest of us are destined to stumble our way to it. Do we really need to stumble or have we missed clues that were placed along the way?


Penthrall: Connecting the Dots

Image Courtesy: Doug Geisler

A Life Uninhabited

February 18, 2015 at 11:24 am

“While we speak, envious time will have already fled; seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next day.” From the Roman poet, Horace’s Carpe Diem to the Canadian rapper, Drake’s YOLO, we have ingested many versions of “You only live once”. But do we really live only one life or does our resistance against being given just one, make us live many inside of it?


Multitasking Gods: Image courtesy Steve Jurvetson

Multitasking Gods : Image courtesy Steve Jurvetson

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